The Illini win!
I have been waiting virtually four years to write a column like this. Heck, I have been waiting four years to have a Saturday where I got done watching Illinois and felt great about the program. For the first time in a very long time, I got done watching a football Saturday with a smile on my face.
You can throw away the ‘Illinois has lost 24 of their last 25 games' line we have heard way too often in the last few weeks. You can put to bed the ‘Illinois hasn't beaten a Division I football team in 12 straight games.' You can forget the fact Illinois hadn't won a Big Ten road game since 2002. No longer do we have to hear that Illinois hasn't beaten Michigan State in East Lansing for more than decade. All of that is done, because on Saturday the Illinois football program turned a corner.
It's going to take more than one win to say that the program has truly turned the corner, but going on the road to beat a very talented Michigan State team ends all the talk of the dismal streaks and more importantly puts some much needed life and confidence into a program has been lacking that for a long time.
This team and this program are turning around. Week by week and day-by day they are erasing that losing attitude that has been hovering around this program for way too long. Of all the great things that happened on Saturday the single event that told me that this wasn't the same old Illini was watching them recover from Juice's interception that was returned for a touchdown.
The ‘Old Illini' would have folded the tent. They would have looked at that interception and said, ‘Here we go again.' How many times in the past four years have we seen something bad happen to this team and then watched the snowball continue to roll down hill? And let me say this—there isn't an Illini fan out there who didn't worry about that as Michigan State kicked the ball off with the score tied at 10.
The Illini didn't blink. They didn't panic. They certainly didn't say, ‘Here we go again.' All they did was put together a beautiful, textbook nine play 79 yard drive that ad the Spartans defense completely back on their heels. To me it was a drive that announced to the Illini nation that this wasn't the same old Illini—this was now a team who believed they could win tough football games even when everything didn't go their way.
When E.B. Halsey completed that pass to Jacob Willis in the back of the end zone you had to smile. That alone showed you that things are starting to turn.
The O-Krush Defense
It was only a year ago that the Michigan State Spartans ran through the Illini defense like a hot knife through butter. On that fateful Saturday, Drew Stanton and the Spartans completely had their way with a unit that looked like they couldn't stop a high school football team.
I don't know what happened or how it happened, but this is a completely different defense. For the last two weeks this is a defense that has imposed their will—that's right imposed their will—on two talented offensive teams from the Big Ten. Going into this game, I thought the Illini defense would really struggle trying to stop a loaded Michigan State offense that had so many weapons. I couldn't have been more wrong…
The Illinois defense held the Spartans to 14 first downs, held their vaunted running attack to only 82 yards on the entire day and only gave up 13 points to statistically one of the best offenses in the entire Big Ten. The only time they gave up points (for the second week in a row) was when they were playing against a very short field. Quite simply the defense has been awesome in the last few weeks and guys who have been missing over the last few years are all over the field making plays.
I will touch on some individuals here in a second, but I would remiss not to take some time to talk about Coach Okruch. I know that Coach Okruch is playing with a few more weapons than our past few defensive coordinators had, but you can't convince me a big part of this turn around isn't due to the arrival of Coach Okruch.
This defensive unit looks completely different and they are playing with a great deal of confidence. We are no longer seeing defensive backs playing 15 yards off receivers on 3rd and 5. We are no longer seeing quarterbacks sit back in the pocket long enough to take a nap. The guys on the field are playing better and they deserve a lot of credit, but if you are going to always blame the defensive coordinator when things are going wrong you certainly have to praise him when things are going good.
Was that really him?
Was I the only one who found himself looking at some guys on the defensive side of the football on Saturday saying, ‘Was that really him? The defense was flying around the field and it's hard to believe we were watching the same guys who were on the field last year.
J. Leman: What can I say? I have been critical of Leman in the past and I have wondered if he was a legitimate Big Ten linebacker. You never questioned Leman's heart or questioned his motor, but you certainly questioned whether he has the size or speed to make an impact in the Big Ten.
I think he has answered all of those questions with the first five weeks of the 2006 football season. Leman finished the Michigan State game with 11 tackles (his fourth straight game of double digit tackles) and he now leads the entire Big Ten in tackles. That's right—J Leman is leading the Big Ten in tackles.
In the 4th quarter on 3rd and 3 from the Illinois 39 yard-line, Drew Stanton handed off the ball to A.J. Jimmerson and out of nowhere Leman streaked through the line to wrap up Jimmerson for a three-yard loss forcing a Spartan punt. That was the type of play that guys like A.J. Hawk, Paul Posluszny and dare I say the immortal Dana Howard would make. I remember getting a call a few months back from a friend who laughed when he heard that J Leman was put on the pre-season Butkus watch list—well laugh no more. He isn't going to win a Butkus, but he is a legitimate Big Ten linebacker.
Derek Walker: He has a while to go, but I think we finally have someone on the defensive line who offensive lines have to scheme for. Walker showed some flashes of greatness in his freshman year, but this year he has been much more consistent from game to game.
As he gets stronger and smarter, Walker is getting better and better. It's scary to think that he is only a sophomore but he has a lot of potential. He had 1.5 sacks against the Spartans and through five games he has 4.5 sacks on the year which puts him in the top five in the Big Ten.
The Defensive Line: I had to touch on Walker individually, but the entire defensive line was incredible this past Saturday. How many of you were watching that game and saying, ‘What was that really David Lindquist?' or ‘Was that really Doug Pilcher?' or ‘That couldn't have been Josh Norris!'
Lindquist, Pilcher, Norris, Will Davis, Chris Norwell and company were all over the field. When was the last time an Illinois team came away from a football game with five sacks? If the front four can continue to cause that kind of havoc, it is going to make the back unit look even better.
Ice in his Veins
The game was on the line. The score was tied at 20 and there were just under three minutes left to play and Illinois had to turn to a freshman quarterback (in his second start nonetheless) to try and orchestrate a game winning drive in front of 70,000 plus Spartan fans on a Homecoming Saturday in East Lansing. In a normal situation you would say they had no chance.
Juice Williams isn't normal and his scramble for the first down on 3rd and 6th tells you all you need to know about our freshman quarterback. With the whole stadium against him and the pocket collapsing he had the presence of mind not to panic and was able to get out of the packet and rush for the first down. Three passes to Kyle Hudson later and the Illini were in field goal range—just incredible.
There's no question Juice has a long way to go, but it really is scary to imagine how good he will be when the game slows down and he becomes accurate with his arm.
Pierre Thomas: 18 rushes for 110 yards…all day long he pounded the Spartans and he once again showed his toughness coming back from what seemed to be a bad knee sprain in the second quarter of the football game.
Pierre Thomas needs to touch the ball 17-20 times every game and he showed why this past Saturday.
Coach Locksley: Coach Locksley has been victim of a lot of complaints early this year, but I thought he had a masterful game plan on Saturday. He mixed it up and he did a great job getting Juice involved in the run game.
His back-to-back trick play calls (the McPhearson reverse and the Halsey throw to Jacob Willis) on that incredible drive after the interception worked to perfection.
As Coach Locksley gets more and more confident as Juice grows, I expect him to open up the playbook a lot more.
Derrick McPhearson: Speaking of DMac, he looked great breaking tackles on that reverse and he showed some of that athletic ability we have all heard about. This staff needs to find ways (short screens, reverses, option plays) to get him the football in the open so he can use that speed.
Kyle Hudson: He was quiet all game, but he was magnificent on the last drive. Hudson doesn't have a lot of flash and he doesn't look the part of a big time receiver, but in third down situations and big spots he always seems to be open and make the catch.
When you really break it down, I forgot how much fun college football Saturdays can be.
Ruminations from Week Five
**Melvin Alaeze—we barely knew you. Unfortunately he wasn't able to take the opportunity that Coach Zook and the entire football program afforded him. It's too bad too, because we all know how much we could use big time defensive players.
With that said you really need to give credit to Coach Zook, Ron Guenther and company for cutting ties with Alaeze when they did**
**Speaking of trouble, I can't even begin to put into words how disappointed I am in Richard McBride. Here is a kid who is going into his senior year and he still doesn't get it. This team is going to need McBride and he let them down—I would love to say was very surprised that something like this happened with Rich, but how could you be? The staff has to come down hard on McBride and they should. How many chances should one kid get? While it would certainly hurt the team, I wouldn't be upset or surprised if he never plays another minute on the Assembly Hall Court**
**I am excited about this weekend and it's great to see some excitement back in Champaign. This week the Illini welcome the Indiana Hoosiers into Memorial Stadium for a homecoming battle. The Hoosiers come into Champaign coming off a drubbing at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers and they have battled all kinds of adversity this year as their coach continues to recover from surgery.
The Hoosiers aren't a good football team and while Illinois still has a long way to go they should be able to handle the Hoosiers on homecoming. I think the team plays with a lot more confidence and for the first time in a long time they find a way to win their second straight Big Ten game.
Illinois- 27 Indiana- 17
As I get ready to watch the Illini for two in a row, Still Bleeding Orange and Blue—Jared Gelfond